Not Now Bernard and other stories is an irresistible album of music for all the family revelling in the magical colours of childhood memories, featuring world premiere recordings of pieces for narrator and chamber orchestra by British composers Judith Weir, Malcolm Arnold, John Ireland and Bernard Hughes, performed by the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Tom Hammond, and narrated by leading actor, TV star, comedian and broadcaster Alexander Armstrong.

The album is the brainchild of composer Bernard Hughes and conductor Tom Hammond. Bernard and Tom have worked together on a number of projects since 2009, including Tom commissioning Bernard’s pieces on the album for two of his orchestras. The aim of this album was to bring together a diverse selection of pieces in high-quality performances, plugging holes in the recorded legacies of great British composers alongside Bernard’s pieces. It was also their ambition to bring a sense of fun to the music, celebrating works that are intentionally enjoyable and funny. Bernard Hughes’s settings of classic children’s stories are the most recent pieces, using vividly imaginative, witty and tuneful music to bring to life three wonderful stories by David McKee and James Mayhew. Alexander Armstrong gives a hilarious and touching performance as narrator, his distinctive voice characterising each piece brilliantly to explore humour and human nature. The result is an engaging, lively and thoroughly entertaining collection of music and words which all the family can enjoy together.

The album is produced by Bernard Hughes himself and is released on 7 February by Orchid Classics, one of Britain’s leading classical labels.


The pieces and the composers

Malcolm Arnold – Toy Symphony. Arnold was one of the towering figures of British music in the twentieth century, whose prodigious output included nine symphonies and over 70 film scores. Composed in 1957 for a musicians’ fundraiser, the Toy Symphony pits a quintet of professional players against a battery panoply of novelty instruments, including a train guard’s whistle, a quail whistle and three parping toy trumpets, to hilarious but brilliantly musical effect. This is one of the few major Malcolm Arnold pieces in his ‘occasional’ style never previously commercially recorded, showing a combination of winning melodies with absurdity.

Judith Weir – Thread! Written in 1981 near the beginning of her stellar career, Thread! is a setting of texts sewn into the Bayeux Tapestry, and is a vivid re-telling of the Battle of Hastings, from the Norman perspective. This piece has also never been commercially recorded, although it is a personal favourite of the composer. An exciting and vibrant piece that deserves a wider audience.

John Ireland – Annabel Lee. A melodrama for piano and narrator in a new chamber arrangement by Bernard Hughes, setting a chilling, atmospheric poem by Edgar Allan Poe.

Bernard Hughes – Not Now, Bernard, Isabel’s Noisy Tummy and The Knight Who Took All Day. These pieces are based on children’s books by David McKee (Mr Benn, Elmer the Patchwork Elephant) and James Mayhew. Originally scored for narrator and symphony orchestra, this recording features the versions for chamber orchestra. In Not Now, Bernard a young boy, neglected by his parents, meets a monster in his garden, with shocking results. Isabel’s Noisy Tummy tells of a girl who is troubled – but eventually redeemed – by a misbehaving stomach. The Knight Who Took All Day tells of a knight confronting a dragon – with the timely help of a princess. All three are enchanting stories told with humour and melodic, friendly music

Not Now Bernard and other stories is released on 7 February by Orchid Classics, one of the UK’s leading classical labels. The album is available to pre-order now.


Orchid Classics website

 

Last week I went up to Stratford to attend a concert given by the Orchestra of the Swan, conducted by Tom Hammond, a friend and colleague for whom I have been doing some publicity work.

There’s a nice symmetry in all of this because Tom and I first met online through a blog article he wrote, bemoaning the fact that critics and concert reviewers rarely seem to make the effort to travel outside of the M25, or indeed Zone 6 on the Underground, to cover the excellent and varied music-making which goes on outside the capital. The issue came up for discussion at the Music Into Words event I co-organised back in 2016, where an arts editor from a leading broadsheet newspaper basically admitted that they tend only to cover the “premier division” of concerts, and that these are by and large in London. It’s a great pity because there is so much fantastic music-making going on outside of the capital: since moving to Dorset I have attended three excellent music festivals, which, by the way, attract international artists, and Tom is co-artistic director of an excellent music festival based in Hertfordshire – easily accessible by road and rail from London, but largely overlooked by mainstream critics because, despite also attracting international artists, it takes place in what is sneeringly call “the provinces”.

There is nothing provincial about the Orchestra of the Swan (OOTS), nor the programme at Tuesday night’s concert. Led by David Le Page, one of the most self-contained and sincere musicians I have ever met, OOTS can match any London chamber ensemble in its creative programming and outreach and educational projects. Tom had been invited by David Le Page, who is AD of the orchestra, to create a programme and he chose to focus on Jean Sibelius, whose music first attracted him to classical music when he was a child. Some may regard a programme focusing on a single composer as “a list”, but this imaginative programme combined well-known works, such as The Swan of Tuonela and the layered complexity of the Seventh Syphony, with the rarely-performed Humoresques for Violin & Orchestra and excerpts from the Tempest suite. Entitled Intimate Voices, it gave the audience the opportunity not only to experience some of Sibelius’ lesser-known music but to also appreciate the breadth of his musical imagination and artistic development for the programmed spanned the outer limits of his compositional life. It made for a fascinating and absorbing evening, and the orchestra rose to the challenge of this complex, multi-faceted music with great aplomb. They were joined for the Humoresques by violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen and there was a very palpable sense of mutual cooperation and enjoyment between soloist and orchestra.

But there was more, beyond the music itself, which made this a particularly enjoyable and uplifting evening, and that was the audience, who filled the Stratford Playhouse auditorium with the kind of warm enthusiasm that many promoters can only dream of. It was quite evident that this audience was as committed as the orchestra, and this created a wonderful sense of a shared experience – which is what music making is all about, after all.

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Tom Hammond conducting Orchestra of the Swan, 21 January 2020

 

21 January 2020 – Stratford Playhouse, Stratford-upon-Avon

Tom Hammond – conductor

Tamsin Waley-Cohen – violin

Orchestra of the Swan


It was the music of Jean Sibelius that first sparked conductor Tom Hammond’s interest in classical music: he found the mystical world of The Swan of Tuonela entrancing on first hearing it. This haunting tone poem opens Intimate Voices, a concert curated and conducted by Tom Hammond with Stratford-upon-Avon-based Orchestra of the Swan.

In Intimate Voices, Hammond combines his great love of Sibelius’ music with his skill in creating imaginative programmes to explore the musical and personal landscape of Jean Sibelius through his own words and compositions. From the magical sonorities of The Tempest and the stark simplicity of Scene with Cranes to the bold, distilled complexity of the seventh symphony, Sibelius the man is revealed through the intimate thoughts in his letters and the dark, awe-inspiring qualities of his musical imagination.

Tamsin Waley-Cohen joins Hammond and the orchestra as soloist in the rarely-played Humoresques for violin and orchestra – highly virtuosic yet introspective miniatures which reveal the composer’s great love of the violin, and which Hammond believes are musically superior even to the Violin Concerto.

For Tom Hammond, Intimate Voices is “a dream of a programme”, containing some of his favourite music, and an opportunity for audiences to experience Sibelius’ lesser-known works: deeply imaginative and utterly absorbing music that evokes Finnish myths and Shakespeare’s magical isle, pine forests, lakes and snow.

Programme:
The Swan of Tuonela (from Lemminkäinen Suite)
The Tempest, Suite No.1 [excerpts: The Oak Tree, Humoreske, Berceuse, Ariel’s Lied (The Rainbow)]
Humoresques for Violin and Orchestra, Op.89
Kuolema (Valse Triste & Scene with Cranes)
Symphony No.7
Performance date:

21 January 2020 – Stratford Playhouse, Stratford-upon-Avon
orchestraoftheswan.org
tom-hammond.org.uk